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Music from anger and powerlessness - Extra focus on sensational composer Georg Friedrich Haas in November Music

Last year, Austrian Georg Friedrich Haas caused a stir at the Holland Festival by openly talking about his master-slave relationship with his wife Mollena. If possible, even more startling was their joint production Hyena. Mollena Williams-Haas told a blood-curdling account of how she rehabbed from her alcohol addiction, her husband providing the hypnotic music. This year, Haas is one of November Music's central composers. For the festival, he wrote the brand new Solstices for the British Riot Ensemble. The Dutch premiere of his Ninth String Quartet will also be heard.

In modern music circles, Georg Friedrich Haas is considered one of the most important composers of our time. However, he is still largely unknown to the general public - despite the frank confessions about his sex life. Yet gradually more and more people are learning to appreciate his colourful, iridescent compositions. Thanks in part to his ensemble piece in vain, performed partly in complete darkness.


Haas composed it in 2000 out of a sense of anger and powerlessness. A government coalition had just been formed between the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs and the Österreichische Volkspartei. In vain is inspired by the infinite stairs in the lithograph Rise and fall By Maurice Escher. Just as people walk aimlessly in circles, music too circles its own axis. A fine symbol of the futile resistance to the far-right of society.

Also strong is how Haas lets different sound worlds collide during passages played in the dark. Harmonic, pleasant chords collide with terrifying constructions of microtones. Because these tones deviate from the twelve semitones of the usual scale, they sound "false" to our ears. The already menacing atmosphere intensifies when the lights are extinguished. With the musicians, the audience as it were descends into the impenetrable darkness of right-wing populism.

No visual stimuli

An additional effect is that you experience music much more intensely when you are not distracted by visual stimuli. This may be at odds with the trend of using images and installation art, but Haas revels in it. Solstices and the Ninth String Quartet are performed even from beginning to end in pitch-black darkness. Solstices premiered last February and received rave reviews.

A grand piano plays the leading role. It is in so-called "pure tuning", which means that all intervals are microtonal. The ten musicians have to listen intensely to the piano and each other in order to respond without any visual hold. The piece opens with turbulent, twisted chords from the piano, interspersed with shrill exclamations from trombone and other horns. The exhilarating swirls are somewhat akin to in vain.

After about five minutes, Haas switches to a lower gear. The musicians build consonances of elongated lines, the piano places individual notes in space. This creates a process of deep listening, in which we are almost literally sucked into the wondrous microtonal sound world. It recalls the minimalist pieces that La Monte Young composed in pure mood in the 1970s.

Delayed dawn

'It was like the dawn announcing itself, but delayed in an excruciating way by the music'
Haas distributed Solstices into segments, which he himself regards as games and which are introduced by the pianist. The other musicians play memorised excerpts, but are partly allowed to improvise. Together, they work towards an immense climax. Building on this, they keep a chord going for almost five minutes towards the end. Then the light gradually returns; the stronger the light, the softer the music, after which it dies out into nothingness.

'It was as if dawn was announcing itself, but delayed in an excruciating way by the music,' wrote one critic after the premiere. 'The mind moves to strange, sometimes sinister places when placed so isolated in the dark.' Another reviewer simply spoke of an 'unforgettable listening experience'. Solstices is an experience either way.

The Ninth String Quartet that Haas composed in 2016 for the Jack Quartet is also microtonal and is performed by extinguished light. In this quartet, he pairs extraordinary mood with blistering tension arcs and a great sense of musical drama. The Italian Quarteto Maurice guarantees a glowing performance.

- Off to Den Bosch, then!

Good to know Good to know
Saturday, 2 November Georg Friedrich Haas: Solstices, Riot Ensemble
Friday, November 8: Georg Friedrich Haas: String quartet no. 9, Quarteto Maurice 

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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